Growing up, Georgia’s Allison Schmitt thought she was going to be the next Mia Hamm.
“I had the Mia Hamm Barbie doll, the Mia Hamm everything,” she said of the retired soccer superstar. “I definitely thought I was going to be a soccer player but that didn’t really work out too well. Probably wouldn’t be very pretty now if I did soccer either; I’d be tripping all over myself!”
Give it time and little girls might say they want to be the next Allison Schmitt. The bubbly swimmer — 6-foot-1 and curly-haired with an infectious laugh — is poised to compete in her second Olympic Games as competition begins this week in Omaha, Neb., at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Schmitt is seeded in the top seven of four individual events: first in the 200-meter freestyle, second in the 400 freestyle, fourth in the 100 freestyle and seventh in the 800 freestyle.
At least four (up to six) swimmers in the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle disciplines will be selected to compete in London this summer, in addition to up to two swimmers in each event.
Her competitive philosophy? “I just laugh at everything, so I don’t really give myself that much time to be nervous,” she said.
Kidding aside, Schmitt spent much of the past school year in Baltimore doing some serious training with Bob Bowman, the former Michigan coach who is also coach to Michael Phelps. A native of Canton, Mich., she also trained with Bowman in high school as a member of his Club Wolverine program alongside Phelps.
Training with Phelps, a winner of 16 Olympic medals and the sport’s most famous figure, was “a lot of fun” like Schmitt consider most everything else these days.
“He’s just like a normal person,” Schmitt said, who considers Phelps like a brother. “We can always joke around, but he also knows when to work hard. We definitely are able to push each other to succeed and hopefully it will pay off this summer.”
Heading into London, Georgia has sent 33 swimmers and divers to the Olympics, making 46 appearances and representing 14 countries.
The 22-year-old Schmitt was an Olympian by the time she started competing for Georgia after helping the 800-meter freestyle relay to a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008. During that Olympic Games, Bulldogs coach Jack Bauerle served as the head coach for the U.S. women’s swim team.
In the fall, Schmitt will return to Athens, Ga., after a year away to finish up her psychology degree with a minor in childhood and family development. She currently sports better than a 3.0 grade-point average.
Schmitt’s situation is a unique one for Glada Gunnells Horvat, a senior associate athletic director at Georgia who works with NCAA and SEC eligibility for student-athletes in all sports.
Horvat has worked for the school’s athletic department for more than 30 years but doesn’t remember any student-athlete that went to an Olympics Games heading into and during her college career. Even former Bulldogs basketball standout Teresa Edwards, who competed in five Olympic Games, participated in her first as a sophomore and second after finishing her eligibility.
“I think it’s terrific,” Horvat said. “I have seen students who’ve gone to the Olympics and they thought they would come back and they didn’t, it took them a long time to come back, and some of them didn’t come back. But she’s all about going to school, which is very exciting.”
“School is the number one priority,” said Schmitt, who has been named to the Athletic Director Honor Roll and SEC Academic Honor Roll.
As a student-athlete, Schmitt had to wake up for 5:15 a.m. practice, go to class all day, go back to practice at 2:15 p.m. and then head to study hall or a tutoring session afterwards. The days also included homework and studying and getting to bed at a reasonable hour to refuel for the next day.
Those experiences helped Schmitt as she was training full-time for London.
“Being able to have that time management from being a student-athlete has definitely helped with swimming,” she said. “Just being able to put in the work, do everything right the first time rather than staying there longer and continuing to try and fix it.”
Time management is the key, according to Claire Foggin, academic counselor for the Georgia women’s swimming and diving team, but it also takes maturity on the part of the student-athlete to succeed.
“I’d say a lot of that has to come from within,” Foggin said, lauding Schmitt’s ability to take care of her academic responsibilities. “That sort of discipline and that sort of drive to do that sort of thing really has to come from the person. There’s not an external force that can have someone succeed on that level and the academic level.”
In addition to catching up on her studies, Schmitt looks forward to re-joining her Georgia teammates in the pool. At the 2011 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships, Schmitt won the 200 and 500 freestyle titles for the second and third year in a row, respectively. She also anchored the winning 400 and 800 freestyle relays for the team runner-up Bulldogs.
“I love the team atmosphere — everything about the team from practicing, pushing each other in practice every day to dual meets, to SEC Championships to NCAAs,” Schmitt said.
“It’s a great honor to be able to stand on a podium as a Georgia Bulldog.”
Schmitt says that in the future she wants to work with children and will probably pursue a master’s degree after finishing her undergraduate degree.
There’s little doubt that Schmitt, who enjoys playing board games and scrapbooking outside the pool, has achieved academic and athletic success. Even though her soccer career didn’t pan out, it pushed her to the no-cut sport of swimming.
“I kind of had the decision made for me when I got cut from the soccer team,” she said, looking back on the moment more than 10 years later. “I guess I thought I was good but I wasn’t really that good!”